Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

There's nothing to tell.
There's nothing to say.

Can anyone explain the difference between those two statements and give some examples on how they should be used? I think I do have a basic understanding, but I'd like to hear it from someone who knows this to the deepest roots.

share|improve this question
1  
What about situations in which there is no difference between them? Those constitute by far the majority. –  John Lawler Dec 4 '11 at 22:47
add comment

12 Answers 12

up vote 15 down vote accepted
+50

"There's nothing to tell" is a response to someone's asking for details about an event or a story, where the responder implies that the information the asker wants to know doesn't actually apply to the event or story. For example:

Q: "What happened at the party last night?"

R: "There's nothing to tell."

(Nothing happened or things that you don't really care about happened, but that's it - i.e. I hung out for five minutes and went home.)

The responder could also say, "There's nothing to tell," in order to downplay what actually happened. For example:

Q: "It must've been really hard to become such a good swimmer. How did you do it?"

R: "There's nothing to tell."

(The answer is too long and/or boring, so I'll spare you the details.)

Another instance is your own suggestion of using "There's nothing to tell" to mean, "I don't want to tell you what happened."

"There's nothing to say" is very similar to "There's nothing to tell" in that the responder thinks any response the asker might expect either doesn't apply or doesn't matter. It's also possible that the responder doesn't really want to answer the question. The biggest difference is that "tell" generally involves some sort of story or narrative, and "say" involves some sort of issue or non-narrative topic. For example:

"I would love to visit Area 51. Wouldn't you?"

"There's nothing to say."

(I don't think it exists, so my response doesn't apply.)

"Do you think signing that bill into law was the right decision?"

"There's nothing to say."

(It doesn't matter what I think.)

share|improve this answer
8  
You don't think area 51 exists? ;P –  Garet Claborn May 18 '11 at 2:21
    
@GaretClaborn Yes, a much more appropriate response would have been "I go to Area51 all the time. StackExchange is awesome! Please visit and support my suggestion of a Narwhal-related Q and A site!" –  Zoot Dec 5 '11 at 17:59
    
eh,... I just found it to be a bit of an ironic situation. –  Garet Claborn Dec 7 '11 at 10:04
add comment

I think the answers so far, although correct, miss some of the point. "Nothing to say" means just what it appears, and there could be all sorts of reasons for not wanting to say anything (as when some idiot asks 'what d'you think of that sunset?'). "Nothing to tell", on the other hand, specifically denies that there's a story. The questioner expects a long answer, and you can't or won't provide one.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The ‘Cambridge Grammar of English’ by Carter and McCarthy (not to be confused with ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’) shows that the two words differ on a number of points of syntax. For example, say cannot be followed by an indirect object, but tell can be (I told her, but not *I said her). I can give details of other differences if you want them.

As far as meaning goes, tell focuses on the content or message of what is said, while say focuses more on the words someone says. So, There's nothing to tell suggests there’s no story, no incident has occurred, nothing to satisfy anyone’s curiosity. There's nothing to say means that something may have happened in which others might be interested, but there’s no point in saying what it is. A couple of examples might help.

TELL

A. Hey, what happened to you last night? I wanna hear all about it.

B. Nah, nothing. Really, there’s nothing to tell.

SAY

A. Are you just going to leave me? No explanation? Just walking out like that?

B. We’ve been through it all before, haven’t we? There’s nothing to say.

share|improve this answer
add comment

First, one has to distinguish the meaning of say and tell.

  • Say is standalone, singly-sourced announcement, the act of a person speaking words. While there may be a listener, this verb does not include such.
  • Tell is a transfer from one person to another. It usually requires both a sender and a receiver. The receiver is often a direct object, though it can be implied.

Say more often is used with direct quoting than tell, though both can be used that way:

  • I said not to touch it.
  • I said "don't touch it."
  • I told you not to touch it.
  • I told you "don't touch it." (Mildly awkward).

Notice that when you have a direct object, say requires a preposition but tell does not (in a way, the preposition is included in the meaning of the word). Consider:

  • What did you say to him?
  • What did you tell him?

Second, examining your given phrases:

There's nothing to tell.

This sounds to me like it takes the position of an external fact. Perhaps you've been asked to tell the juicy details of some encounter, and you are indicating that no such juicy details exist. Stating it actively as "I have nothing to tell" sounds a little awkward without a direct object, and the switch to I now seems an internal fact that while there could be something to tell, you will not do so. Adding a direct object such as you to the end seems to restrict the meaning away from entirely external, leaving the possibility that there might be something to tell someone else, but not you.

There's nothing to say.

While stated passively, this to me is a near synonym of "I have nothing to say." It sounds like an internal fact about one's willingness. While it is stated passively and possibly could mean the same as "there's nothing to tell", the use of say suggests to me a shift away from external reality because the earlier-mentioned "single-sourced" nature of the word over tell.

Overall, to avoid ambiguity, I would use "I have nothing to say to you" to firmly state an internal meaning of unwillingness to speak regardless of the presence of actual content, and "there's nothing to tell" to firmly state an external meaning of the lack of content.

Adding talk to the mix would be even more complicated. Briefly, this verb implies a round-trip exchange, like mutual telling, and usually needs explication of the parties involved, perhaps through a direct object. "There's nothing to talk about" sounds to me like another internal statement, with an implied "between us" on the end.

share|improve this answer
    
Wow! That's an interesting one! I couldn't see it even after you pointed it out, and of course you are 100% correct. Thanks for the pointer--I have updated my answer accordingly because that is exactly what I meant to say. What a trip that I couldn't see it!!! –  ErikE Jun 27 '13 at 22:51
add comment

They're very similar; have a look at this Chris Isaak song (apologies for the ad-ridden source).

Nothing to tell you, You don't love me no more

Nothing to say now, nowhere to hide

"Nothing to say" also seems more common in writing (n-gram for both) but they're similar with "there's".

The strongest difference I note is that "Nothing to tell" usually requires an assumption that there there is a listener who could be told, a thing that could be told, and the listener already has an expectation about the thing to be told. The meaning of "nothing to tell" is often

The thing you are asking me about isn't as you think.

(It's not as lurid as you think, it's boring, I'm going to tell you about some of it but I'm trying to make your expectations for the story more reasonable...)

"Nothing to say" can mean this, but it doesn't have to. It can stand on its own more easily; it doesn't require an assumed question from a listener or a guess at the listener's mental state. "Nothing to say" can mean

Things are unspeakably bad. I'm lost for words.

or even

I do have one thing to say, and I'm saying it now by saying I'd rather not talk to you.

For example, it would convey this meaning if you walk up to someone and say "I've nothing to say to you!" but it doesn't work well with "I've nothing to tell you!"

share|improve this answer
add comment

I think that semantically the phrases are not idiomatic i.e. they do not have additional meaning assigned to the specific forms listed.

If you accept that then the meaning and the difference comes from the difference of "say" and "tell".

It should be noted that both words can mean exactly the same thing: "to communicate information" or can deal with specifics.

Tell
From etymology of the words the most obvious is that "to tell" comes from O.E. "to reckon, calculate, consider, account", with meanings:

  • "to narrate, relate" from c.1000,
  • "to make known by speech or writing, announce" from early 12c,
  • "to reveal or disclose" from c.1400,
  • "to order (someone to do something)" from 1590s,

In the sense evolution, cf. Fr. conter "to count," raconter "to recount;" It. contare, Sp. contar "to count, recount, narrate" (see more)

Def from dictionary, primary meaning:

Tell: Communicate information to someone in spoken or written words

Say
From O.E. secgan "to utter, say," which seem to had more stable meanings.

Def from dictionary, primary meaning:

Say: Utter words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention, or an instruction

In context
Finally, putting it in context here is an attempt to outline the difference.

"Nothing to say" - of situation where the speaker want to express that there is nothing to be said; no appropriate words to reply or to respond to a situation.

John finished packing. There was nothing to say.

"Nothing to tell" - of situation where the speaker has nothing to narrate or recount.

John left. There is nothing to tell. (Lucy on the phone with a friend)

In the first example using "to tell" instead of "to say" would change the meaning; "to tell" implies a story (narrate, relate), announcement (make known by speech or writing) or disclosure (from reveal or disclose).

This is different and more specific compared to "to say" which literally means "to utter".

So, semantically they can both express the same thought, unless you use "to tell" to emphasize one of the more specific meanings, or if you use "to say" to express a meaning that is not matched there is a difference and they are not interchangeable (I tried to illustrate this in the example).

Here are a few examples to illustrate the difference between saying and telling in terms of semantics:

She said "Vogons!", but that did not tell me anything.

He told me to go away, but what he actually said was pretty vulgar.

Finally, here is an interesting ngram showing frequencies over time for additional pondering.

share|improve this answer
add comment

"Nothing to tell" means "nothing noteworthy", or, ironically, "nothing noteworthy that I choose to tell"

"Nothing to say" can convey a "no explanation" meaning:

What was your brother doing at the party last night?

  • I've got nothing to tell.

Seriously, why does he do those crazy things?

  • I've got nothing to say.
share|improve this answer
add comment

The difference between to say and to tell should give us a clue as to the difference between these two phrases. Tell is used with an specific object, for instance "Please tell them I am OK", where say is used when the speech is to be directed somewhere, such as "Please say 'I am OK' to them".

Therefore:

Use Nothing to tell when it can be followed by a specific indirect object. Example: "There is nothing to tell (you)."

Use Nothing to say when it can stand by itself or it can be followed by an indirect object that is a prepositional phrase. Example. "We have nothing to say", or "I have nothing to say (to them)".

I found this link to be useful in explaining the difference between say and tell.

share|improve this answer
    
What you outline is a difference in usage, not in meaning. You bring up the distinction of "tell you" and "say to you", but this distinction does not help you to chose which to use i.e. you correctly describe that "nothing to tell to them" and "nothing to say them" are wrong, but OP is asking how to chose between "nothing to tell them" and "nothing to say to them" (semantics, not grammar). -1 –  Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 14:18
    
@Unreason: I am sorry, I must have misread the OP's question, I thought the question was about usage, not meaning. –  Jay Elston Dec 1 '11 at 14:51
add comment

There are a lot of examples here, but I thought appealing to the etymology might help clear up the differences between "say" and "tell."

Say is derived from Old English secgan meaning "to utter." Say is close in meaning to declare, and is used for the words that are spoken. It might help to think of this as the transmitting side.

"I don't know what you mean," he said. He said he just didn't get it.

Tell has a complicated derivation that is related to "tale," including Old English tellan meaning "to reckon or account." Tell is close in meaning to recount, and is used for how the words that are spoken are interpreted by a listener. It might help to think of this as the receiving side.

He told me he just didn't get it. He told me he didn't understand.

So I would say that "I have nothing to say" implies that the speaker has nothing to declare, and no desire to utter even a single word. He is refusing to transmit.

On the other hand, "I have nothing to tell" implies that the speaker has no story to recount, but they may be perfectly willing to speak. He is willing to transmit, but there is nothing of interest to be received by the listener.

So if you have nothing to say, you will have nothing to tell either, but the converse is not necessarily true.

share|improve this answer
    
I answered before reading yours; now I see you looked at etymology, too, but I disagree that the fact that say is close to meaning to declare is a good point of distinction - "to tell" had a meaning of to announce since 12c and anyway I find announce closer to say and to tell compared to to declare. –  Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 14:05
add comment

To be honest, I didn't know the differences. Well, I've searched and I found out:

"Nothing to tell" is used when you're talking to a special person and you say it because you don't want to tell that person about the subject, maybe you will tell someone else more about the subject.

"Nothing to say" means you don't have any words or anything to mention, when you're talking to a special person, or you don't have anything to say if you start to talk to someone else, you're speechless.

Maybe wrong, or maybe I couldn't explain well.

Hope this helps.

share|improve this answer
add comment

“Nothing to tell”: nothing worth mentioning.
“Nothing to say”: no comment.

Need I say more?

share|improve this answer
add comment

"There is nothing to say" has some flavor of faint while "There is nothing to tell" is more formal.

share|improve this answer
3  
What is "flavor of faint"? –  Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 13:54
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.